From Thomas Edison to Grand Teton National Park

March 15, 2016 Posted by: Dr. Allison Druin
When I was a kid, I never thought much about National Parks. Growing up in northern New Jersey in the late 1960's, National Parks, to me were far away, out west with large mountains, geysers, or bears. What I didn't realize was that for years I was actually visiting a National Park right in my own hometown of West Orange, New Jersey: Thomas Edison National Historical Park. The Edison labs were a magical place for me and my father, a lifelong chemical engineer. The dusty old bottles, piles of papers, endless books, and large steel machines told the greatest stories of invention, innovation, and perseverance. For years, Park Rangers would tell us about the hundreds of materials Edison and his colleagues would test to find just the right one to make the light bulb commercially viable and available in the 1880s. Park Rangers told us about how phonographs, batteries, and movies were invented, and changed the world.

Thomas Edison National Historical Park, Entrance to Lab Complex, NPS Photo
Thomas Edison National Historical Park, Entrance to Lab Complex, NPS Photo

Thomas Edison National Historical Park, Building 5, Heavy Machine Shop, NPS Photo
Thomas Edison National Historical Park, Building 5, Heavy Machine Shop, NPS 

What I did not realize until decades later, was that those annual trips to see Edison's labs, would change my world. That National Park brought to life a way of thinking about research in teams. It captured for me the successes and failures of any innovation process. That National Park showed me how science didn't just matter in labs, but in large factories that could build new products for people around the world. 

Those important stories, from those inspiring Park Rangers started me on a path to becoming professor, a lab director, and eventually the University of Maryland's (UMD) first Chief Futurist. For almost 20 years at UMD I led a team that brought together professional researchers and children ages 7 to 11, to create new digital experiences for learning. For 12 of those years, my team partnered with the National Park Service to create new digital experiences that could amplify the stories of our National Parks. 

It wasn't until years later that I went to one of those National Parks out west with mountains and bears, that I started wondering how I could work for the National Park Service. My team and I had the chance to think about the future, in the prehistoric natural beauty of Grand Teton National Park. In view of stunning mountains and lakes, we sat in the dirt brainstorming what might be possible for our digital future. My experiences at Grand Teton National Park gave me the courage to take a leave of absence from academia to join the National Park Service. 

Grand Teton National Park, July 2015 (A. Druin, Photo)
Grand Teton National Park, July 2015 (A. Druin, Photo)

Grand Teton National Park, Design Session with Kids, July 2015 (A. Druin, Photo)
Grand Teton National Park, Design Session with Kids, July 2015 (A. Druin, Photo)

Today, as Special Advisor for National Digital Strategy, I get to think about National Parks that explore civil rights, historic war battles, the wilderness and protected lands, presidential homes, the birth of the atom bomb, and the birth of women's rights. I work with amazing people from all over the country to think about new digital ways to access, tell, and preserve our national stories. Thomas Edison National Historical Park started me on this journey. And Grand Teton National Park gave me the courage to explore these new digital paths. The exciting thing about the National Park Service is the opportunities it provides for all of us to be inspired, and this blog is our attempt to share the challenges and opportunities we face as we look for new digital ways to accomplish the 100 year old mission of the National Park Service. 

1 Comments Comments icon

  1. Mel
    March 17, 2016 at 07:55
     

    An amazing analysis how it all fits, from childhood experiences to Academia to the National Park Sevices. My exposure to Edison in West Orange and his Labs, factory and even his home planted a seed in me that motivated me to develop and implement the "Edisonian Approach" in my industrial experiences at Celanse Corporation and Cambell Soup over a period of of 33 years This included research, applied research, application and market development to translation to small scale pilot operations to large scale "semi-works" to the initial commercial manufacturing operation.reservh to As Edison did, we utalized and introduced management tools including: an interactive systems approach of teams consisting of research through the business units units; and partnering with our suppliers of raw materials to our customers who bought our products; and leveraging our internal skills and products with companies

     
 
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Last updated: March 17, 2016

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